Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - October 1997

* Crude Puns, Crude Pubs *

Over many years, CAMRA has been strangely indulgent towards the Firkin chain of so-called brewpubs, which have done great damage to the credibility of the organisation, our pub heritage, the image of real ale, and indeed the English language itself.

The chain was started in the early eighties as an independent operation by David Bruce, and it must be said that his cheap and cheerful brewpubs furnished with old church pews proved very popular. At this time, though, virtually all of the beer was kept in cellar tanks under CO2 pressure and therefore didn't qualify as real ale. Even so, amazingly, Mr Bruce appeared on the front cover of a CAMRA guide to microbreweries. Some CAMRA branches were so keen on their local Firkin pubs that they put them into the Good Beer Guide listing only one or two guest beers which were real, when they knew very well that most of the beer wasn't.

The rudimentary interiors may have been tolerable when the chain was independently run and mainly occupying premises newly converted to pub use, but that changed once the concept was taken over by national giants Allied-Domecq and rolled out into a lot of their existing pubs. We may have escaped relatively lightly in Manchester, but across the country many historic pub interiors have been destroyed by these Firkin vandals.

When Tony Greener, the Allied-Domecq manager responsible for the Firkin chain, spoke at CAMRA's national conference earlier this year, we were left in no doubt about the callous and cynical marketing philosophy that now underpins the operation. Yet it is still common to see CAMRA members working at beer festivals wearing Firkin T-shirts without any apparent sense of contradiction. They'd almost be better off advertising Fosters - at least that could be seen as ironic, and nobody imagines it has anything to do with real ale.

The image of real ale put across by the Firkin chain is of a rough, home-made product with crude names like "Dogbolter", fit only for swilling by students in a tatty, bare-boards atmosphere. This does a grave disservice to the many micro-breweries who do take their craft seriously and produce distinctive, high-quality beers. And the "home-brewed" image is becoming seriously out of date, as more and more Firkins do not brew themselves but take beer produced at other locations.

Worst of all, the chain has been responsible for an epidemic of poor and often offensive puns stemming from the obvious connotations of the word "Firkin". This promotes a downmarket image of real ale drinkers as people given to coarse and sexist humour.

Well, I think it's all a Firkin disgrace!

* If They Can Do It, Why Can't You? *

Congratulations to Wetherspoons on announcing that they are to convert all their draught beers to oversize glasses. Once again, they have shown that they are a company that, on standards of customer service, leads the market rather than following it. Full measures are rapidly becoming a touchstone of proper treatment of pub customers. So it's disappointing to see that only six of the twenty-seven pubs included in the new Good Beer Guide in the Stockport & South Manchester area use oversize glasses, significantly excluding recent and potential Pubs of the Year, which on many other points are exemplary. So, come on licensees, next time you buy any new glasses, make sure they've got lines on them!

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